I’ve long been fascinated by memento mori, both the phrase and the objects. In Latin, memento mori means “remember you will die.” The phrase is usually associated with the Middle Ages in Europe, when it was fashionable to depict skulls, bones, and corpses in art and personal effects. The message behind these motifs was to encourage people to reflect and repent, to live holy lives, lest they be swallowed by the flames of hell – always waiting around the corner for a new sinner to char.
At the Rubin Museum in NYC, a new show includes some stunning examples of memento mori, from bejeweled skull rings to an ivory bust of a Bohemian general missing half his face. But in a fascinating departure from gloomy Europe, the exhibit also includes objects representing Tibetan ideas of death and the afterlife. (The Rubin Museum is usually devoted to art of the Himalayas, presented in a serene little pocket of Chelsea.)
The show is called Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures, and indeed the objects represent a small survey of European and Tibetan ideas about the end of life. Europeans had skull rings, but the Tibetans had bone armor – a shawl woven of bone beads carved to look like skeletons. In various paintings on view, deities dance with the pearlized armor in a way that recalls the glittering props of belly dancers. Several other paintings show yogis meditating in charnel grounds, which were considered an ideal place to confront the fear of death. Two 18th century Tibetan bronzes depicts the Lord of the Charnel Grounds as a skeleton, dancing amid a ribbon of his skin. Also on display is a shin bone trumpet, and a hand drum decorated with images of human skulls and intestines. (For more great images, go to Morbid Anatomy.)
The objects from both parts of the world are a joy to view and contemplate. Buying a ticket, the admissions girl told me, “prepared to be scaaarrrreed!” as if I was entering a creepy funhouse ride. Yet the images didn’t scare me at all. They’re didactic, meant to teach a lesson. In both cultures, the lesson is intertwined with social control – behave properly, and you will avoid hell and bask in heaven. However, the wonderful thing about memento mori is that even as they compel the believer to look beyond this life, they also compel him or her to seize it. For the hedonist, that can mean embracing pleasures that religious authorities would prohibit, and in that sense memento mori are sweetly subversive. For me, the objects are a call to penetrate the sleepiness of everyday life in order to cultivate a greater awareness of the moment. One of the most fascinating things about death is how it reinforces the preciousness of life. Looking at the objects on display, I am reminded of what Kafka said about literature – that it should serve as “an ax for the frozen sea within us.” The tug of these objects can serve a similar purpose.